Living in Korea for the last few years has given me a new and rather unexpected perspective I would not otherwise have. That is to say, if I hadn’t lived here, I probably wouldn’t have written the article you are reading right now. I know, it sounds weird, so let me explain. South Korea is a hotbed that attracts English speaking foreigners from all over the (native-English-speaking) world. Alright fine, Americans and Canadians. In California, we live in a bubble (I don’t mean that offensively) where our perceptions of Mexico influenced by our friends, and in my case, family which happen to be Mexican. Pretty much everyone in California is either Mexican, or knows quite a few Mexicans, giving you (us?) kind of an ‘inside-scoop’ into the culture.
With that said, what does the rest of the country, and by extension, the rest of the world think of Mexico? The people I have met in Korea (foreigners in this case, but also Koreans) have given me an idea of the misconceptions. Given what often makes the headlines, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but it isn’t pretty. In addition, I was surprised that very few people have actually been to Mexico, with the exception of border towns, given how close our two countries (okay three, you’re included this one time Canada) are to each other. Maybe the title is a bit deceiving as some of the items on this list are, to some extent, true. Nonetheless, this list hopes to calm your fears about traveling to Mexico, and/or to give you an insight to encourage you to visit what is easily (bias alert) one of the best countries in the world.
Here are people’s misconceptions about Mexico…
5) Mexico is a Third World Country
First off, what does that even mean? The term ‘third world’ was invented during the cold war as a geo-political division of countries aligned with the US (1st World), the Soviet Union (2nd World), or neither (3rd world / non-aligned). Given that the Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore, Cuba considered themselves “non-aligned,” and China was revealed to have split from the Soviets long ago, the term didn’t even make sense then, so why would it make sense now.
“You’re splitting hairs with me,” you might be thinking, missing the main point. More accurate modern indicators would be the division between developing, recently developed, and highly developed countries where Mexico ranks as recently developed, or the Human Development Index, where it ranks as “highly developed.”
Okay, cut the crap, it is run down and dirty…right? Well, it depends on where you go. There are places in Mexico that look exactly as run down as the border downs, and there are richer neighborhoods that are so nice, you would swear you are in an upscale part of the US. Most of the major cities in Mexico may look older because they are preserved to look that way. Mexico is a proud country that preserves its history, but this isn’t something that should count against it.
4) Mexico is Corrupt
Yes, it is, but probably not as much as you may think. People seem to have the idea that Mexico is filled with gunslingers, mobsters, and run like a really bad wild wild west movie. While it is true that corruption, especially in the government, is a main concern to Mexicans, Mexico ranks on par with countries like Brazil, Argentina, and even Italy when it comes to corruption. I bet you didn’t expect Italy right? I bet no one is canceling their romantic trip to Venice or the land of Ancient Rome because of Italian corruption.
For the most part, the corruption in Mexico is a native, Mexican problem, and really wouldn’t affect your every day traveler, minus the occasional bullshit ticket if you rent a car. In recent years, there have been politicians trying to fight it, which has led to violence, but unless you have a dog in this fight, you will be safe.
3) Mexico is All About Cancun
While I haven’t been to the city of Cancun, I have been to the beaches along the Yucatan Peninsula (like Tulum) and admit that they are possibly the most gorgeous beaches I have been to in my life, so I understand the allure. However, when some people think about Mexico, they immediately think about this high-end resort town where you are more likely to meet foreigners than Mexicans. Even if we stay in the topic of beaches, there are many more to consider than just Cancun. Take this article from CNN Travel that ranks the top 50 beaches in the world. Two Mexican beaches make the list, Lover’s Beach in Baja California, and Tulum at #5 no less. These aren’t slights at Cancun, they just go to show how much Mexico has to offer. And with that…
2) Mexico History is Entirely Aztec
While Mexico’s history immediately before the arrival of Spain includes an Empire known as “The Aztec,” this is extremely misleading. To bring up an analogy, imagine that a foreign power arrived in Europe during the Napoleonic Wars, and (due to Napoleon’s current success) considered the entire land “France.” While it would be technically true that the lands conquered by Napoleon are now France, they ignore dozens of ethnic cultures with long and rich histories of their own. The same is true in Mexico.
The empire known as the Aztec was formed by a flimsy alliance of the Acolhuas, the Tepanecs, and the Mexica people (where the name ‘Mexico’ comes from) of Tenochitlan (modern day Mexico City). The Mexica quickly controlled the other two city-states and moved on to conquer other civilizations across what is now Mexico. The empire itself was formed in 1427, making it less than 100 years old when it was conquered by the Spaniards. However, the history of Mexico, and the civilizations that lived there run far deeper than this. Two civilizations of note are the inhabitants of Teotihuacan and the Maya.
The Teotihuacanos, as they were referred to by the Mexica, were a mystery even to them in the 1500s. The ancient pyramids of Teotihuacan were abandoned around 700AD and no one has any idea who built them or why. What we do know is that at its height, around 100 AD, Teotihuacan had a population of about 125,000 people, making it the biggest in the Americas. The pyramids continue to be one of Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations for good reason as they are spectacular structures built by an intriguingly enigmatic culture.
The Mayans ruled the southern part of Mexico and what is now Guatemala, centuries before the Mexica. They had advanced knowledge of the stars and cyclic natural events. The ruins of Tulum, Palenque, and Chichen Itza are some of the most amazing and best preserved in the world. One proof of their knowledge appears on the side of the main pyramid, ‘El Castillo,’ every year, during the spring equinox. A shadow cast on the side of the pyramid forms, giving the illusion of a snake running down the steps. Check out this video.
last but not least…
1) Mexico is Unsafe
While there are parts of Mexico that I wouldn’t recommend after dark, Mexico is surprisingly safe. Mexico City for example, is often thought of as a haven for crime. However, aside from pick pockets (which are also a concern in much of Europe), the amount of federal police officers in the central city make it one of the safest places I have ever visited. I often make the claim (and it’s true) that I have never been out of the sight of a cop in Mexico City, making me feel generally at ease. While I would advise using some common sense, don’t panic into thinking that every Mexican walking down the street is looking to steal your purse. They (again, we?) are just looking for some damn tacos!